THE WAGON OR THE MOUNTAIN

After the phenomenal leap from nomadism to settled village life, prehistoric culture shuffled along rather placidly for a few thousand years. Then something peculiar happened.

Scholars who concern themselves with the broader problems of history often anthropomorphize the cultures they are comparing. The man-shaped figures that represent civilizations may be pictured as climbing a ladder or a mountain slope, progressing ever higher on their way to—what? Us? But if we are determined to have an analogy, we might say that the process of civilization more closely resembles the acceleration of a wheeled vehicle on a downward slope; slow at first, then ponderously gaining speed until it rushes headlong across the level plain beneath. Momentum carries it on for some distance, initially at a speed so great that it may seem as if acceleration were still taking place. But eventually the heavy vehicle slows…and slows…and stops. And there it remains, in a state of rest, until some unknown force returns to push it toward another slope, or until it decays and disappears.

We cannot really compare a culture to a wagon any more than to a human being climbing a mountain. But analogies are fun, and this one gives a mental picture that may be useful to us. For something did give the Egyptian prehistoric culture a shove, during the late period we call Naqada II. The picture of society we see then is noticeably different from that of the earlier cultures. People lived in houses with windows and doors, and wore clothing woven out of flax. The flint tools are elegant, even to an antiflint observer; and copper is increasingly used for artifacts which had been made of stone. Graves are deeper and more carefully built, sometimes lined with wooden planks. There are differences in the graves now, some still small, some larger and more pretentious, and the grave goods of the larger tombs are richer—sure signs of class differentiation. People had more time for activities that were not directly related to the struggle for existence; they played games and they painted pictures on their pots. The old brown and red pottery continues, but a new type enters, made of a new kind of clay and decorated with quaint little figures of men and animals and boats. The boats carry insignias, which may be the standards or devices of small political units; we assume that in this period the land of Egypt consisted of many communities, each governed by a local chief. These changes are striking, but they are not so striking as the further changes that are about to occur. We are very close to the First Dynasty now—to the beginning of history and of civilization, properly speaking. We are curious, not only about what happened, but also about why it happened.

Let us go back to the wagon on the slope. We might carry the analogy one step further and ask: Does the wagon creep along (we will grandly ignore the fact that neither a culture nor a wagon can be said to “creep”) until it reaches the point at which the ground drops away from beneath its wheels; or does someone come up behind it and give it a shove? More pedantically: does civilization arise naturally out of a primitive culture because that culture has, by slow accretion, reached a critical stage of development; or does an external stimulus serve as the catalytic agent?

I would like to avoid the term “primitive,” because it implies a certain value judgment. I can’t do it, though. Alternatives like “preliterate” and “prehistoric” are at once too explicit and too vague. You know what I mean, and I know what I mean, so let’s stick to “primitive.”

We may argue about exactly what distinguishes a civilization from a primitive culture, or even about whether such a clear-cut distinction can be made. Let’s not argue about it. Let us merely agree that certain new elements are necessary to define a civilization: monumental architecture, centralized government, a division of labor resulting in social classes, and, perhaps most important, writing. If we think about these elements, we see that each of them implies more than it says about the society in question. Monumental architecture, for instance, requires advanced techniques in the preparation of materials, and some understanding of architectural and mechanical principles; it also suggests that the state can spare some of its members from the basic work of food production to work on labor gangs; further, it implies that there is an elite group within the state that has the power to order and supervise such labor. The keeping of records becomes necessary—for purposes of taxation, if for no other reason.

So when and where did all this begin? Did the idea spread outward from the original center to other societies, or did it occur independently in various parts of the world? If it did occur only once, where was the cradle of civilization?

The problem of Diffusion versus In de pen dent Invention is still being debated by scholars, and also by people whose scholarship is, to put it nicely, goofy. The latter believe in a single source, but they don’t agree on what it was. Some give the credit to the hypothetical geniuses of the lost continent of Atlantis. However, the most popular current theory favors visitors from outer space. I don’t want to get started on this, because it makes me lose my temper.

A slightly more believable version of the Diffusion scenario holds that all advanced civilizations derived from a single terrestrial source, with Egypt being the leading contender. It is only slightly more believable, really. Despite superficial similarities such as pyramids and sun worship, the advanced civilizations of the Americas have no provable, direct connection with the much older civilizations of the Middle East.

It’s not as simplistic as that, of course. There is always communication among cultures; the closer they are geo graphically, the more frequent the contacts. Enterprising merchants have been around since prehistoric times; some such trader might have seen a pot whose shape took his fancy and brought it home to be imitated and improved upon. He might have watched, openmouthed, as a priest scribbled weird symbols on a piece of stone or stamped equally weird symbols into a clay tablet; once the purpose of the exercise had been explained, its usefulness would have been apparent to a keen-minded man. This process is sometimes referred to as stimulus diffusion—the copying of a concept instead of an object.

Ancient Sumer and Ancient Egypt aren’t that far distant physically. Egyptologists and Sumerologists have been arguing for years about which of their pet civilizations was the first to invent writing. For a long time the Sumerologists were ahead. Their arguments went like this: Despite the fact that elements of the two cultures appear dissimilar—the mud-brick ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the stone pyramids, the pretty picture writing of Egypt and the bird-track cuneiform—there are signs of Mesopotamian influence in Egypt at the very end of the predynastic period. Cylinder seals are typical of Mesopotamia and atypical of Egypt, but there are cylinder seals in late predynastic graves. Building stone is scarce in the flat plains of the Land of the Two Rivers, so the natives of that region built in brick; the earliest large-scale architecture of Egypt is in the same brick, and it imitates a well-known Mesopotamian style, recessed brick niching. Even when the Egyptians began to quarry their numerous fine sources of stone, they cut it up into brick-size pieces.

These traits died out early in Egypt and were replaced by “Egyptian” ways of doing things. Stone architecture began to employ the monolithic blocks we can see in the Giza pyramids; seal impressions were made with stamp seals—scarabs—instead of with the cylinder type. And the writing, of course, is completely dissimilar. The pictures of objects, which became the hieroglyphic symbols of Egyptian writing, were all Egyptian objects. But who got the idea first, the citizens of Sumer or those of Egypt?

Not that it really matters. However, since some people think it does matter, the reader should be informed that in recent years discoveries at the holy city of Abydos in Egypt have turned up examples of writing—typically Egyptian writing—that are earlier than anything found in Mesopotamia. So there.

Let’s get back to the wagon. The analogy isn’t bad, actually. The achievement of civilization, however arbitrarily we define it, was not an event; it was a process, and a complicated process at that. A number of factors were responsible. The concept of stimulus diffusion, which we mentioned above, was undoubtedly one of those factors, but the idea of writing wouldn’t have caught on unless the borrowing culture had reached a stage of development in which the new concept was understood and desired. In terms of our analogy, both a change in terrain and a push are needed to get the wagon going; the stimulus would not be felt if the circumstances were adverse.

Because people like simple answers, scholars once postulated a “dynastic race” whose people entered Egypt at the end of the prehistoric period, bringing with them the gifts of civilization. They unified the land and, like the Normans in En gland, ruled the conquered indigenes as a racially distinct noble class, before interbreeding produced a single people. The dynastic race came from Asia—a large place, but one cannot summarize the conflicting theories of origin more precisely than that. They spoke a Semitic language, which mingled with the Hamitic (African) tongue of the natives to produce the Egyptian speech.

The term “race” is out of favor, and rightly so. Anthropologists use it to delimit certain groups of human beings in terms of “nonessential” differences—skin color, hair texture, shape of skull, and so on. Study of predynastic skeletons suggest that they may belong to several different physical subtypes, but we can’t be sure who these people were, where they came from, or what they actually did. All sorts of people came into Egypt, from prehistoric times onward—merchants, traders, invading armies, immigrants, envoys. We will see them coming, and sometimes going, as we follow the long centuries of Egyptian history, and once we get well into history proper we can document foreign influences more accurately. But in preliterate cultures we don’t have written records, or even much material. Often the evidence for a “race of invaders” consists of cultural changes, which, in prehistoric societies, primarily means new kinds of pots. I have a prejudice against this sort of argument. I get idiotic mental images of invading armies brandishing pots, which they thrust threateningly into the trembling hands of the conquered indigenes. Current thinking, I am pleased to report, denies the dynastic race and the waves of invaders. Cultural change can result from trade as well as conquest, and the more we learn about predynastic cultures the more we see continuity and interrelationships.

This has been an unsatisfactory sort of discussion; instead of answering questions, it raises new ones. But this is the subject matter of prehistoric archaeology, when it goes beyond the simple cataloging of bones and pottery. The questions raised are important questions. If they are ever answered, we will learn much, not only about Egypt, but also about the human animal in general. The scope of the problem is universal, and the answers deal with man himself.

The beginning of history in Egypt is signalized by a noteworthy event—the unification of the country into a single nation, whose boundaries ran from the sea in the north to the first cataract of Aswan. We know very little about political organization before this consolidation. We assume that the small tribal units of the early predynastic gradually amalgamated and formed larger social and political groupings. At one time Egypt may have been made up of several dozen little states, each ruled by a prince or a chief. Through conquest and marriage and the other techniques of imperialism the smaller units were eventually joined into larger kingdoms. We have now ambled into the late predynastic period, aka the Protodynastic, Naqada III, or according to some people, Dynasty O.

A lot more is known about this period than was the case thirty years ago. One of the most fascinating sites is that of Hierakonpolis, which is about thirty miles south of Luxor. (As the reader may have guessed, I have selected it from among several other places because I’ve been there.)

There have been sporadic excavations at Hierakonpolis for over a century. Early expeditions turned up some of the best-known artifacts of the late predynastic—the Narmer palette, the so-called painted tomb, the Scorpion mace head, and so on. In the late 1960s an expedition settled in for the long haul, and it has laid bare innumerable cemeteries, a town site of considerable extent, and the remains of one of the first temples found in Egypt. The temple was dedicated to the god Horus, who became the symbol of kingship and one of the most popular deities of Egypt throughout dynastic history. The fact that Horus was apparently the local god, the sheer size of the town, and the existence of various royal artifacts suggest that Hierakonpolis was the capital of an Upper Egyptian kingdom—one of several, perhaps, with Thinis (Abydos) and Naqada as rivals. Eventually, to make a long story short, the kingdoms became one. Whether diplomacy and royal intermarriage were factors is and probably always will be unknown, but there certainly was a lot of fighting. Scenes of battle and the ceremonial bashing of captives appear on carved objects dating from this period—knife handles, mace heads, and stone palettes.

Presumably a similar process was going on in the Delta, so that eventually there were two kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south. Each kingdom had its own set of symbols and insignias and its own protective gods and goddesses. The king of Upper Egypt wore a distinctive White Crown and the king of Lower Egypt a Red Crown.

Crowns of the king of Egypt Above, right to left: red crown, white crown, double crown Below, right to left: blue crown, Nemes headdress

We know that there were kings of the southland, for one of them was the Unifier, who conquered the north and became the first king of the Two Lands of Egypt. We know his name—Menes. We know when this signficant event happened. It was in 3400 B.C.; or 3110 B.C.; or maybe 2850 B.C.

A relative chronology like Petrie’s presents problems of one order; absolute dating has its own difficulties, and they are not minor ones. The adjective “absolute” may sound misleading. How can a system be absolute when we can give three alternative dates for an event like the beginning of the First Dynasty? We would expect one date, or none at all. Let us now consider some of the techniques used in Egyptian chronology. It is a complicated subject and deserves a section all to itself.

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